December is a joyous time for many swimmers, with final exams concluding, time off school, a chance to finally sleep in, and of course holiday food and presents. The holidays also bring infamous Hell Week training for many programs. Though few Masters teams have complete Hell Weeks, epic holiday sets like 100 x 100 are longtime staples with a similar function.
For some, Hell Week is a sacred tradition as critical to swimming as water itself (“I had to do it when I swam, so you should too.”) Mental toughness is also a high priority. After experiencing a 100,000yd week (or whatever one’s Hell Week volume is), 60,000yds should mentally seem less daunting. For masters, a 100 x 100 day makes the usual 3-4k sets seem like a warmup. Anecdotally, many athletes swim season-best times shortly after Hell Week, offering validation for the holiday suffering. Perhaps the least disputed virtue of Hell Week is team building, as shared agony often generates cohesion, though it’s not uncommon for tired athletes to get chippy with each other in the short term.
But not everyone believes in Hell Weeks. Costill (1983) was one of the first to question the Hell Week tradition in writing, and raised concerns that insufficient recovery, lasting glycogen depletion, and muscle damage could increase injury risk and impair long term performance. However, with the United States in a golden age of distance swimming in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s obvious tradition was not going to budge despite these concerns.
Dr. Rushall is perhaps the most outspoken opponent of Hell Weeks: “The practice of subjecting athletes to excessive amounts of training as a method for developing “character” or locating the “mentally-tough” athletes in a squad is irresponsible and could be construed as physical abuse. There is enough evidence to support the contention that “hell-week” forms of training are sufficiently threatening to the well-being of athletes that litigation asserting negligence on the part of a coach demanding participation in such an experience is a distinct possibility.” Though we haven’t seen a rash of lawsuits following Dr. Rushall’s hyperbole, the health concerns remain valid if left unchecked.
The Hell Week metaphor likely came from elite military units. But it’s important to draw a distinction here. Hell Week in a military environment is a one-time experience within a selection process; it is not an annual training event. The week itself is much less about training and much more about selection. In contrast, Hell Week in swimming occurs during the season and the swimmers are already on the team! That’s not to minimize the virtues of toughness training, but it does require examination of costs versus benefits, especially midseason.
Nevertheless, swimmers may indeed recover from Hell Weeks physically stronger. Acute performance improvements after intense blocks are not unique to swimming. Pichot (2000) studied competitive middle distance runners during a heavy three week training block and found significantly diminished parasympathetic dominance (by 41%) over three weeks. In other words, by objective standards, these runners were pretty cooked! However, after a week’s recovery this trend reversed and the runners increased parasympathetic measures by 46%.
There are no direct Hell Week studies in swimming (that I’m aware of) but Hellard (2011) tracked eighteen elite swimmers during a two year block. It’s not clear if they performed a true Hell Week during holiday break, but they likely did attend camps. Authors noted two key findings: increase in respiratory tract infection during winter and national level swimmers were more susceptible to illness than international swimmers. These results don’t speak to causation, but they do highlight inherent risks in winter and confirm the need for individualization, as the fastest swimmers are also more resilient.
Tradition is the lowest form of evidence in science. Hell Week may indeed be a best practice in swimming, but requires more justification than “we have lots of time during break” and “we’ve always done it this way.” It is especially difficult to separate correlation and causation: does Hell Week benefit swimmers or does it simply identify the most naturally resilient while crushing those less able to recover? Though we’re unlikely to find definite answers, asking the right questions should help us approach the optimal training doses for each swimmer.
- Costill, D. L., & King, D. S. (1983). Workout evaluation. Swimming Technique, August-October, 24-27.
- Pichot V, Roche F, Gaspoz JM, Enjolras F, Antoniadis A, Minini P, Costes F, Busso T, Lacour JR, Barthélémy JC. Relation between heart rate variability and training load in middle-distance runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Oct;32(10):1729-36.
- Hellard P, Guimaraes F, Avalos M, Houel N, Hausswirth C, Toussaint JF. Modeling the association between HR variability and illness in elite swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Jun;43(6):1063-7.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community.
Previously published 12/2012.